If you want to get more people on their bikes, find a way to appeal to women, one expert says.
By Julie Deardorff, Tribune newspapers
2:00 a.m. CDT, July 26, 2011
Chicago’s first protected bike lane on Kinzie Ave., which uses soft plastic posts and a parking lane to buffer cyclists from car traffic, could make city riding safer. And if these separated lanes appeal to women, they could dramatically boost the number of urban cyclists, says an expert on biking and gender differences.
Though men take twice as many cycling trips as women in the U.S., females are the key to getting more people out of cars and on to bikes, argues Jan Garrard, an Australian researcher.
Women have been called the “the indicator species” in bike-friendly cities because when they pedal, there’s a trickledown effect, said Garrard, a senior lecturer in public health at Deakin University in Melbourne.
“In countries that meet women’s cycling needs, more children, older adults and other more ‘risk-concerned’ groups also cycle,” said Garrard. “If we make it safe, fun and easy for women, we make it safe, fun and easy for everyone.”
Women tend to be more risk averse and less reckless than men, studies show, and more concerned about bike safety. Garrard’s research has found women are more likely to use off-road paths rather than roads with or without bike lanes. “The real and perceived risks of cycling are enhanced among women, and this ranges from concerns about serious injuries to the everyday hassles often associated with cycling,” she said.
Safety isn’t the only factor, however. A survey published in Transportation Research Record found that “comfort” and “needing a car” – likely for household errands, the researchers speculated — influenced women’s cycling rates but not men’s, Linda Baker reported in Scientific American.
Other obstacles for women include a lack of confidence about the mechanical aspects of cycling, poor cycling skills (especially in traffic and groups), fear of driver aggression and problems getting good advice in a male-dominated environment, Garrard wrote in the study “Healthy Revolutions: Promoting cycling for women.”
Still, more communities are working to lure women. In Portland, one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, the Community Cycling Center offers basic bicycle maintenance classes for women. Taught by female mechanics, the classes were requested by customers who said they wanted to ask questions but often felt stupid around male cyclists, said Zan Gibbs, the CCC’s adult programs manager. “The idea of learning in an environment of women was appealing to them,” said Gibbs.
New York City has installed some of the most innovative bike lane designs in the country, including “cycle tracks” which are physically separated from cars, parking protected bike lanes and two-way separated lanes.
Chicago, meanwhile, is going ahead with a second protected bike lane, this one on Jackson Boulevard. Since opening most of the Kinzie lane in early July, the city says a survey has found that nearly half the bicyclists using it had not previously used the route. If those new riders are largely female, a healthy revolution might be in the works.